William Linkhaw

Written By North Carolina History Project

In 1873, the North Carolina Supreme Court applied the principle of the separation of church and state in a unique case involving William Linkhaw of Lumberton.

In Reconstruction North Carolina, week after week at a Methodist church in Lumberton, William Linkhaw sang with enthusiasm and volume.  In time, Linkhaw’s jubilant singing more than annoyed the some church members, and a disagreement arose whether Linkhaw embodied a genuine celebration that was manifested in song.  Some laughed at his atrocious singing; others became angry.   The latter took him to court for disturbing the peace.

Daniel I. Russell, later governor of North Carolina during the Wilmington Race Riot, presided over the 1872 district case.  Witnesses for the defense included Linkhaw, and witnesses for the prosecution included Linkhaw’s preacher, Neill Ray.  After hearing as evidence Linkhaw’s fervent yet awful hymn singing, Russell fined the good Methodist a penny for disturbing the peace.  

Linkhaw appealed the decision.  Next year, the North Carolina Supreme Court concurred with Justice Russell regarding Linkhaw’s musical talent yet concluded that Linkhaw participated in religious services that were not exclusive and his singing was not intended to offend.   Therefore, the Court overruled Judge Russell, for matters of church discipline should not be a concern of the courts.